Shortly before the recent outbreak of violence in Tahrir Square, a friend fantasized about what he would do if he had a time machine with two buttons, one labeled “Back to Mubarak,” the other labeled “Stay the course.”
This decent, eminent professional — a tear-gassed veteran of the original Tahrir Square protests that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak last January — found it a difficult choice. He lives in my affluent suburban Cairo neighborhood, where his own family is not among those who have personally suffered from the spiking rates of car theft, often at knife- or gunpoint; the house break-ins, or the increasing sexual abuse of women. So perhaps, my friend mused, he would hang on to his now frail optimism and hit the “Stay the course” button.
As Cairo completed its second day of voting, November 29, part of an elaborate and drawn-out election process that will extend into next spring, a country battered by the events of the past 10 months waited with similar weariness and wariness to find out just what “Stay the course” will mean.
The slogans in Tahrir Square are different this time. Now it is “Down with the SCAF,” referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which remains the country’s only real power center, and “Transfer power now to a civilian national salvation government.” But aside from a minority still camped in Tahrir Square and opposed to participation in elections, it is also “Go out and vote.”
It is considered a certainty that the party of the Muslim Brotherhood will win a plurality, at least, in the parliamentary poll. But that is the beginning of the story, not the end. The real question is what kind of coalition the Muslim Brotherhood will construct to govern — and whether that coalition will really govern at all. Will the SCAF reserve key aspects of that role for itself with a Potemkin government out front?
Aside from a small number of parliamentary seats, election results for the parliament’s lower house will not be known until January. Then come elections for the Shura Council, an equivalent to the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. There are dozens of parties, but most have grouped themselves into one of four large coalitions: the Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s party; an Egyptian Bloc alliance that ranges from center-right to center-left secular parties; an alliance of socialist parties, and finally, an alliance of four Salafi, or Wahabi-oriented Muslim fundamentalist parties.
The Egyptian Bloc and the socialist alliance hope to offset the expected large vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Salafis may do surprisingly well. They are a terrifying force, both to truly traditional Muslims and to liberal secularists (many of whom are also observant Muslims in their private lives). The critical question revolves around the Muslim Brotherhood. If after all the elections the Brotherhood secures a plurality as expected, will its leaders turn for their majority to the secular parties of the center and the secular socialists, as happened recently in Tunisia? Or will they turn to the Salafis and form a hard-line Islamist government?
As we often say here, Allahu Allam, or only God knows. Meanwhile, we live with the reality that moved my friend to reconsider Mubarak, however fleetingly. The transitional civilian government set up by the SCAF has been utterly ineffectual. And the SCAF itself has been curiously passive in exercising its power — except, apparently, to drag out and delay promises to “the Tahrir Revolutionaries.”